June 15, 2020

A Season of Change: Break Down Barriers to Belonging and Leadership

A Season of Change: Break Down Barriers to Belonging and Leadership

People used to say associations weren’t good at change. No one is saying that now! In the last few months, you’ve turned remote work into business as usual. Many of you have created new virtual education and networking events for members along with new revenue streams.

Now, most likely, your staff and leadership are identifying the changes you can make and the steps you can take for your association to become more inclusive. Whenever you're undergoing change, whether it’s a technology project or a diversity and inclusion initiative, success is dependent on how well you communicate and involve stakeholders in the work.

Communicate Regularly to Break Down Barriers to Belonging

Year after year, members join and renew, but that act alone doesn’t lead to a sense of belonging. You may assume they know how to take advantage of membership benefits and resources—but do they? An information dump upon joining is not the best way to introduce a new member to your association and member community.

Some members may never feel like they belong. They don’t have that same sense of trust in your organization as others do because they don’t see themselves represented in volunteer and leadership roles and/or aren’t shown a path to contribute in those roles.

Regular communication helps members understand what they can get out of membership and how to get involved. It helps you open up opportunities, especially the benefits of volunteering and leadership, and build trust with members. But communication can’t be one-way. Two-way communication must flow between your association and all segments of your membership.

Let Every Member Know You’re Listening

We have two ears and one mouth for a reason: listening is more important than speaking, especially for associations. By listening intently to members, you can better understand their needs, interests, concerns, and preferences. Forget what you think you know and find new ways to listen so you can learn what’s going on with them and how things are changing for them.

When you do communicate, this is a time for plain speaking. Never assume members know about your efforts to listen and understand them. Be transparent: tell them how you’re listening and explain why. Even better, demonstrate you’re listening and open to hearing everyone’s opinions and ideas. Heeding another old but true cliché: actions speak louder than words.

You can listen and gather ‘intel’ in many ways: your online community, chats during webinars and other virtual events, calls and emails to staff, and comments on social media. Make random calls to members, particularly segments of members not represented in your leadership. Make sure they know they’re being heard.

We see more associations regularly sending out pulse surveys as a listening tool these days. They’re asking members for their thoughts on switching to a virtual conference and attending an in-person conference. They’re learning about the impact of the pandemic and economy on their members’ lives and businesses. Share the results with member because they want to benchmark their experiences against others.

Your chapters have a direct and personal connection with members. In many associations, the chapter is the association for members. Cultivate your relationships with chapter staff and volunteer leaders so they can assist your efforts to listen to and reach members.

Create a More Inclusive Volunteer and Leadership Pipeline

Of course, you can’t just listen. You have to make sure members know how to take advantage of the most rewarding benefits of membership—volunteering and leadership.

Some members have no desire to serve on a committee or climb the leadership ladder. But they might like the opportunity to speak, instruct, write, mentor, moderate, review, or serve on a task force, advisory board, working group, or project team. However, they don’t always know about these volunteer opportunities because they’re not connected to the right people. That’s a huge red flag: you need to share these opportunities with all members so everyone has an equal chance of participation.

Look at your leadership pipeline, both the official and informal channels.

  • How are volunteer openings publicized?
  • How are volunteers selected?
  • How are committee members and chairs selected?
  • Who gets leadership training? How are those members selected?
  • How are board members selected?
  • Do your committees, board, and other governing groups represent (and resemble) all segments of your membership and market?
  • Does every member really have a fair shot at leadership?

If you want to create a more inclusive association, you have to identify the barriers that stand in the way of a member’s desire to volunteer or serve in leadership. For example, requirements to attend the annual meeting may not be financially feasible for everyone or may prohibit working parents from participating. Are leadership candidates expected to serve on specific committees or donate to causes? Do gatekeepers or influencers stand in the way? What about association traditions?

You can’t expect to recruit a diverse group of members for volunteer and leadership positions unless you make a plan to do so.

Strongly encourage everyone to complete their member/volunteer profile so you can assess their skills as well as their volunteering and leadership interests and experience. Ask them to update it at least once a year, perhaps at renewal.

Create more microvolunteering activities so members can get involved without committing a great deal of time.

Use your AMS to assess engagement levels, for example, who’s volunteering, logging into the website or member portal, opening emails, attending events, etc. Identify who’s being left behind.

Recruit a diverse group of leadership scouts who look for members with leadership potential and personally invite them to get involved.

Open up online leadership training to all members. Track participation and recognize completion. Not only will your association and chapters benefit from members acquiring these new skills, but the industry will benefit as well.

Your association’s communication about the benefits of volunteering and leadership must be unending. Even veteran members don’t always know how to get more involved. They may assume you have to know someone already on the inside—and they may be right.

If it’s time to change how your association recruits and develop volunteers and leaders, let your membership know that. Get rid of traditions and processes that are holding your association back from becoming more diverse and inclusive and providing a sense of belonging to all members.